How does the live-within-your-means movement apply to the current recession?

Joseph brought up some good points in the comments for the previous entry, and I don’t think a short response does them justice. He wants to know what the personal finance experts have to say about the current economic crisis.

Suze Orman actually went on TV a few weeks ago and called it an opportunity of a lifetime. I’ll explain.Joseph says this feels different from other recessions. I think it’s because it is. It’s more like 1929. The major difference is what people were investing in.

The biggest problem in 1929 (besides the crash) was that Herbert Hoover didn’t realize until it was too late that we had a big problem on our hands. That’s not the case this time. Although Bush and McCain were denying it for a long time, both readily admit now that we have a problem.

The cause of our problems today is twofold. One, we should have had a recession in 2000-2001 and we didn’t have much of one. The Fed lowered interest rates to stave off recession, and the result was something of a boom. Both political parties blame the other for this, but basically, under their encouragement, everyone and his uncle was willing to loan people way more money than they could realistically pay back. (Republicans liked this because it was deregulation; Democrats liked it because minorities who previously couldn’t get loans suddenly could get them in spades.) Then, when too many people failed to pay those loans, the banks ran out of money, so now we have banks failing.

I remember seeing Suze Orman come on TV on Sunday morning years ago and warn this was coming. The reason was simple: Too many people were in over their heads in debt, and eventually it was going to catch up with us. She even had the timeframe about right.

It didn’t take a prophet to see it. We started having problems when large numbers of adjustable rate mortgages started resetting. One month, people could make their payments on everything. The next month, their mortgage skyrocketed and there wasn’t enough money left to buy a day’s supply of Ramen noodles, let alone make car and credit card payments.

Soaring gas and food prices didn’t help either, of course. Then again, that’s all interconnected too. Back in 2001, Ford and GM started offering 0% financing, and their primary products were big gas guzzlers. Increased consumption raised fuel prices, which in turn raised the price of everything.

But for those who are able to pay their bills and keep their jobs, the opportunity of a lifetime is nigh.

Stock prices are down. Nobody knows if they’ve hit bottom yet or not. But they came back after 1929, and they’ll come back after this crisis too.

My grandfather was a wealthy man. He started his medical practice sometime during the Depression. He died in 1980, long before I could have a meaningful conversation with him about money. I can only speculate how he made his money, because the living relative who might have firsthand knowledge isn’t especially honest or reliable. I believe he bought stock in the 1930s at depressed prices sometime after he graduated from medical school. While those investments certainly didn’t pay off immediately, by the time the ’50s and ’60s rolled around, he still owned that stock, which he’d bought at Depression prices. At those prices, he might as well have stolen the stock.

I believe the same opportunity exists today. This isn’t the time to cash out your 401(k) accounts–it’s time to max out your yearly contributions, if you can afford to.

A similar situation is beginning to exist in real estate. If William Nickerson (the original make-a-fortune-in-real-estate guy) was still alive, he’d be having a field day. Nickerson made at least $5 million in his lifetime by buying distressed properties and turning them around. Before this crisis is over, there’s going to be a lot of distressed property that needs fixing up.

The bottom line is that the people who have no debt, or who have a reasonable amount of debt under control don’t have anything to be afraid of right now as long as they’re able to stay employed. They have numerous opportunities, in fact.

For one, they’re in an ideal position to convert pre-tax retirement plans into Roth IRAs, which are tax exempt on the back end. You take a tax hit when doing that, but this is the time to take that hit–prices are down.

Two, they can buy stocks and/or real estate at depressed prices, hold on to those assets, and in 20 years they’ll be rich. Once again, let’s go back to 1929. The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked that year at around 380. If you take the worst case scenario, buying at the peak and then crashing, it took 25 years (1954) for the DJIA to get back above 380. But once it did, it stayed above that level for good.

But aside from that extreme scenario, it’s very difficult to find any 10-year period where stocks didn’t make money.

About a year ago, the DJIA was near 14,000. Today it’s below 9,000 and threatening the low 8,000s. There’s no historical precedent for it to drop lower and stay lower, and there’s no historical precedent for it to stay stuck at any level either. There’s every historical precedent for it to reach 14,000 again, and it’s much more likely for it to do it in less than 7 years than for it to take 25 years like 1929. Between now and then, individual companies will go under, but that’s why you don’t invest solely in one company. Buying an index fund that tracks the S&P 500, for example, spreads your risk over 500 large companies. If General Motors evaporates, you lose a little. But if GM gets its act together and the stock soars, you share in the gain.

Finally, when it comes to real estate, all those people who had bad mortgages have to live somewhere. It’s a terrible market to sell, but if you’re inclined to buy properties and rent them out, the environment is ideal for that and will be for a very long time. People who have enough saved up to pay cash can pretty much monopolize this game for a while, since loans are hard to come by.

There’s a positive for the country as a whole too. Did you get sick of the rest of the world buying up our companies because their economies were booming while ours stagnated? Now everyone’s in the same boat as us, so we’ve probably seen the end (at least for a while) of ruthless international conglomerates buying U.S. companies and then slashing everything that moves.

Overall, I do think this bust is a net positive for society, and not just for the reason I just mentioned. I read not long ago that many people under 40 consider the American Dream a birthright, not something that takes work and ambition. Society as a whole has been using borrowed money to artificially raise lifestyles up into the next-higher income tax bracket. Today’s crisis may put an end to that, and ultimately, that’s good for everyone, although it will be painful in the short term.

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